Monday, August 29, 2022

One year after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ended America’s nation-building project in the “graveyard of empires,” the Taliban-led country faces mass starvation and state collapse. Amidst that cauldron of human misery is what remains of al Qaeda, the terrorist group whose jihadist violence led the U.S. into Afghanistan way back in October 2001.

President Biden announced Aug. 1 that the U.S. had dealt al Qaeda another blow to its leadership. A drone strike assassinated Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom the president referred to as a key planner in several major terrorist attacks going back to the 1990s.

In this episode of History As It Happens, Peter Bergen, an expert on international terrorism at New America, debunks the notion that al-Zawahiri was an important figure in al Qaeda’s history even though he helmed the organization after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011.

“While bin Laden was building up al Qaeda beginning in ‘96 and going public with his calls for attacks against the United States, Zawahiri was in a Russian jail languishing and looking to resuscitate his career. And then he came back to Afghanistan after he got released from jail, and he was a penniless supplicant at that point. He had almost no followers. His organization was in tatters. He was not a particularly effective leader,” said Mr. Bergen, who was one of a handful of Western journalists to interview bin Laden, a subject he discussed on an earlier episode of this podcast.

Mr. Bergen said Mr. Biden made a common mistake by linking al-Zawahiri to the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Lawrence Wright’s influential, Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower,” published in 2006, argues that al-Zawahiri strongly influenced bin Laden’s worldview and course of action against the U.S. But more recent reporting has debunked that part of Mr. Wright’s otherwise excellent book, Mr. Bergen said.

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“So that gets to the question of how important was he to al Qaeda? Because we heard from President Biden after Zawahiri was assassinated that he was instrumental in the planning of 9/11, that he had been involved in the ‘98 embassy attacks and the USS Cole attack in 2000. When I heard that I said, none of that makes any sense,” Mr. Bergen said.

“If you look at the record, Zawahiri barely appears in any of the accounts of the planning and operations around 9/11. He also had no influence on bin Laden’s big idea, which was to attack the United States so that the Arab regimes will fall because the U.S. will pull out of the Middle East. It was a nutty idea, but it wasn’t Zawahiri’s idea. It was bin Laden’s.”

Mr. Bergen in this episode also discusses the current state of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the wave of Islamic fundamentalism that began changing world history in the 1970s, and the future of the “global war on terrorism.”

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